What we can learn from the rebellion leadership failures in The Last jedi

How to lose valued staff

This is an odd post for me. I’m terrible as a manager. I’m terrible as a team leader. I think I’m good as a teacher and mentor, but that’s a different role. Lead by example, teach what I know, learn when I can. I’ve definitely not been in the military. And yet I’m about to write about effective leadership… or maybe bad leadership.

Finally I get to see The Last Jedi. And one thing stood out.

(“One thing?” Hush from the peanut gallery!)

Poe make a decision; he ignores his command hierarchy; he achieves his goal, but at terrible expense. As a result Leia demotes him. Then, and this is the part I have trouble with, Holdo, cuts him out of the command loop and tells him to shut up and obey orders.

I’ve heard that being a good soldier means “obey orders”. I’ve also heard that if you go beyond being a grunt then you’re meant to be able to think; an officer is meant to be able to make decisions in order to best obtain the objective. Even soldiers aren’t automatons, and the higher up the chain you are the bigger the perspective you get. The officer on the ground needs to be able to evaluate the local tactical situation in terms of the greater goals.

This is true in a corporate environment. Well, assuming senior management know what they’re doing :-)

As a lead engineer you’re meant to know the organizational goals and the immediate product goals, and make decisions (design, architecture, engineering) that best achieve those goals. If you have questions then you’re meant to engage your leadership team and discuss it with them.

Same if you’re a program manager. Or an SME. Or anyone! By understanding the goals, you can deliver better.

In an organisation, the worst thing your leadership can do is tell you “just do what you are told”.

As a leader you want your team to be invested in your projects and plans, and that means explaining the rationale to them. People work better when they understand things. Even better, they may not inadvertently work against the plan.

I’ve been in the situation where my management tree got replaced; basically they all quit and new people from outside the company came in. They brought their own vision and plans. However they were unable to justify it. It boiled down to “I’m going to throw away a working solution and replace it with a new technology because that’s what I want”. There was no logic, no rationale; indeed the replacement solution would be less secure and performant than the existing one. At least from my perspective as the SME in the area, and management did not explain otherwise (and 5 years later I still believe I was right).

In my case I found another role in the company so I didn’t have to fight that problem.

In Poe’s case he felt he had to take direct action (took control of the bridge) and potentially compromised the master plan. A whole mess could have been circumvented if Holdo has just spent 1 minute explaining the strategy to a person who had previously been part of the trusted advisory council (as much as the rebellion had any structure).

Summary

Good leadership requires all levels of the management tree to be to explain themselves. Simplistically, the seniors set the direction, the middle management set the targets, the juniors set the tasks. But at each level management must listen to the layers below; they must hear the questions, hear the problems, hear the ideas. They must be able to integrate new information from SMEs and respond beyond “because I say so”.

If you can’t explain, you’ll end up with people, in good faith, working against the plan.